In the sandy wastelands of the Midwest, Jim Halsey is traveling toward California to drop off a car, as per his job. Unfortunately for Jim, he soon finds that this monotonous landscape is to become the setting for a vicious game of cat-and-mouse, with Jim in the role of the cheese-eating rodent. Enter the aptly named John Ryder, a seemingly harmless hitchhiker who Jim picks up, saying, “My mother told me never to do this.” Rightly so, because only a few minutes into the film Ryder is shown to be the murderous psychopath that he is after remarking nonchalantly about dismembering the driver of a VW Bug. Luckily, Jim Halsey doesn’t want to die and, pushing Ryder out of the car, chooses a fate more thrilling, action-packed, and indeed more frightening than death.
The Hitcher was written by Eric Red (the genius behind Near Dark) and directed by Robert Harmon, whose career didn’t take off quite like Red’s, his only other really notable films being The Highwaymen and They, neither of which matches up to this much earlier work. That being said, this is a very well directed film for the most part, with nothing done wrong but at the same time, nothing is really done that most other directors couldn’t probably do just as well. The tension is what really shines though, as it is handled with great care, especially in a scene where the viewer is sent to the edge of their seat when Nash, the only female character and Jim’s pseudo-love interest, is put into a great deal of danger. The payoff in the scene really makes the film what it is, thanks in part to a few very good decisions on the director’s part.
Rutger Hauer as the titular antagonist is one of the greatest casting decisions since Anthony Perkins in Psycho, and it works just as well. Having already proven himself in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as a menacing psychopathic android, a menacing psychopathic hitchhiker isn’t much of a stretch—no pun intended, for those who have seen The Hitcher. C. Thomas Howell as Jim Halsey is a slightly more debatable performance, as expressions of grief, triumph, and even possibly insanity are acted out in a crazed style that really does work in its own unsubtle way.
The action in The Hitcher reaches a phenomenal extent that lends to the mythic quality of the antagonist. At one point, Ryder even manages to shoot a helicopter out of the sky—with a pistol. Sure, it’s highly unlikely that this could ever happen, but that is really how it is with the entire situation. The whole film is like a nightmare brought to life, with very little perfectly connecting but at the same time, nothing going so overboard that it ruins the tense vibe. The closest the film comes to this is the final battle, which comes about with no real solid explanation other than “it’s Rutger Hauer, he can do whatever the fuck he wants.”
There is actually a good deal of debate as to who John Ryder really is—perhaps an escaped nut, maybe a man brought to the edge, he could even be a manifestation of Jim Halsey’s imagination (however impossible that may be) or, even worse, he could be the Devil. During an interview with writer Eric Red, made sometime before the release of the Hitcher remake, this question is actually answered. However, it is still fun to speculate as to the origin of this sadistic but somehow romantically sad man named John Ryder.
Being a very fast hour and a half film, one sore point for me is how quickly all of The Hitcher’s greatness goes by. Many people complain about the slightly ambiguous ending being illogical, silly, or a cop-out, but I liked it quite a bit and felt that it brought Jim Halsey’s character full circle. However, it came up and ended so quickly that if you are one to double-task while watching a movie as I sometimes do, you are liable to miss it (along with a good majority of the rest of the film). Nonetheless, it does work and properly ends a quick and simple but effective film.